Liverpool travel to Stamford Bridge this weekend for the greatest test of their season to date. After an excellent start to the season on all fronts, a trip to take on Chelsea, the only club currently placed above the Reds in the league table, will provide the sternest challenge thus far to the side’s ever-burgeoning title credentials.
Liverpool’s impressive early season form has been matched by an equally impressive start to the campaign by the wealthy West Londoners. Both sides are level in the Premier League with identical records of 6 wins and 2 draws. In contrast to recent seasons, Liverpool have been able to match the early pace and the resilience and team ethic have been the stand-out elements of recent results.
However an impressive performance and result at Stamford Bridge would truly alert all of the side’s intentions in 08-09. Whether a ‘œgood’ result can be defined as a draw, or only a win, is another matter. In all previous away encounters against Chelsea in the league under Rafa Benitez the team mentality has generally been one of caution, with chances and goals at a premium. Consequently a draw has been accepted as a good result.
Many may feel similarly, that following a strong opening to the season a draw at one of the toughest venues in the Premier League would be received as a positive result. Chelsea‘s well-documented record of 86 home games without defeat may seem daunting, but with the confidence which Liverpool are playing at present, such records should hold no fear. A victory at Stamford Bridge would undoubtedly be a massive result but the general consensus would be that the Reds are better equipped to consider achieving such a result than at any other point during Benitez’ tenure.
There are injury concerns over a number of key players going into this weekends encounter. Fernando Torres is ruled out of starting following the hamstring strain he picked up whilst playing for Spain last week. Although his decision to remain on Merseyside and continue his rehabilitation, rather than attend his heroes homecoming in Madrid this week, suggests that there could be a chance Torres will play some part on Sunday. Following Wednesday’s draw with Atletico, Liverpool have further concerns over the fitness of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. Indications suggest that Gerrard and Alonso should be ok, with Keane the greatest doubt.
The Reds could certainly do with their big game players fully fit for this weekend; heading into the match without a fully fit first choice strike partnership would likely make the task all the more challenging. However, as they have proved already this season, most notably at home to Man United, Liverpool appear a much tougher proposition this season and are far from a two-man team.
Rafa was left frustrated at his sides inability to hang on to a narrow lead in the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday. Ultimately a draw away to Atletico Madrid and 7 points from a possible 9 overall so far seems a satisfactory return from Champions League Group D. However, the resilience and determination in the Liverpool camp this season demands more, and having led until the 83rd minute we were left disappointed. Such a negative reception of a 1-1 draw away in the Champions League can be viewed as a positive sign for the season ahead and particularly this weekend’s encounter. The stubbornness and resilience that the Reds have shown in so many matches already this season should hopefully hold them in good stead against Chelsea.
The key battle is again likely to be contested in the midfield area. Rafa is sure to play Gerrard, Mascherano and Alonso, if all are fit, in an effort to gain a potentially crucial dominance over the middle of the pitch. If, as is probable, the midfield battle ends in stalemate then the defining moment of the game is likely to result from a moment of brilliance or calamity. All the evidence implies that this weekend’s match is sure to be low scoring, with one goal either way likely to prove decisive. For this reason this seasons trend of granting opposing teams a one goal head start would be best avoided this time around!
Recent history suggests that a low scoring draw is the most likely outcome ‘“ a result which would perhaps suit both sides at this moment in time. But if Liverpool can put in a performance and even gain a result at the Bridge then it would be certain to transform a very good start to the season into realistic hope of a title challenge.